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Stewart Donald’s unique approach to engagement with Sunderland supporters - is it for the best?

Is Stewart Donald’s unique brand of engagement the best course of action for a football club owner?

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Stewart Donald has been about as forthright with the fan base he wedded upon taking ownership of Sunderland AFC as any man could reasonably be. From greeting old and new season card holders at the door, to committing to regular appearances on the Roker Rapport Podcast - there seems to be no barrier between owner and public, at least not in the traditional sense we’ve become accustomed to.

Of course, this is in stark contrast to a mere year ago when then-owner Ellis Short couldn’t get further away from his obligations, and piled every possible responsibility onto the burdened back of his chosen figurehead, Martin Bain, while Sunderland remained in a perennial holding pattern, unable to refuel or reach any meaningful destination, yet seemingly undeserving of any answers as to why. What a difference a year makes, eh?

It has to be asked though - or at least pondered aloud - is this the best way forward for a club in chrysalis?

PA Images via Getty Images

Metamorphosis is delicate. The change from one thing to another consumes energy and resources, and makes one vulnerable to threat. As caterpillars become butterflies (I’m a romantic, bear with me) they protect themselves by cocooning themselves; discreetly hiding away from predators while getting busy with self-improvement.

The transfer market is as dangerous as any wild-land, inhabited by predators galore; player agents stalk the long grass, ready to pounce on unsuspecting c(l)ubs; journalists circle the carrion-dead, constantly seeking scraps for their next meal. Into this jungle the football player is thrown, and the decisions he makes will guarantee a successful future, or an abrupt end.

I’m enjoying this metaphor too much so I won’t go one further and claim the football clubs are like Elephants in this scenario, and that elephants pay exorbitant fees to have animals play 90 minutes for them, we’ll just stop there - suffice it to say that the business of football isn’t for the faint of heart.

It’s not unreasonable then for some of us to have reservations about this almost devil may care attitude (to some) that we’ve been seeing from our new owners. We’ve all got our hearts on our sleeves and we’re all equally desperate that this next leap will be the leap home, but the risks are so great and the rope we cling to so fragile - it’s natural to worry a little.

Does the veil Donald lifts for the fans stay lifted when the club move into the hardline world of transfer business? It’s a good question worth pondering.

PA Images via Getty Images

That being said, if I were truly concerned about this method of engagement it would almost feel like hypocrisy to me because if I’ve championed anything in my measly corner of the internet it’s absolute transparency when it comes to the dealings of a football club. It’s my opinion that they’re too powerful and too influential to be allowed to run rampant over wages and fees unchecked. It’s no criticism of our new owner, this piece, only the vocalisation of my worries with a thought to raise the question.

Yes, transparency is something I want, and it’s something that I believe we should all have, both in football and in the greater world, but unfortunately this leads to the same trap as any ideological vehicle might: the rest of the world around you is not as ideological as you.

Of course, we don’t know the true scale of the works being undertaken at the Academy of Light during this tumultuous time. News from north of the border this week cited St Johnston manager Tommy Wright as claiming our new manager, Jack Ross, had been engaged in shadowy activity when it comes to the recruitment of staff in the instance of goalkeeping coach Paul Mathers. There’s nothing transparent about that, is there?

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Whether or not you condone such behaviour, or even care either way, it does at least demonstrate a pragmatism far more typical of football archons in n true footballing tradition, if not in the expectations of the modern era.

These days the idea of going behind someone’s back to turn someone’s head and influence their decision in your favour is frowned upon, at least publicly, even if the rules that might allow you to do so are, shall we say, “unspoken”.

So for me, when it comes to fears of “too much” transparency, I think we can put them to rest safe in the knowledge that no matter our individual opinions of the “league club mentality” of the new ownership model, fan engagement and club business are two altogether different animals and - touch wood - the new regime seems to understand and respect the difference.

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